When it comes to working the federal government, few players maneuver more deftly than the broadcasting industry. The likes of NBC, CBS, Fox and Tribune have loosened FCC ownership rules. They've prompted Congress to guarantee carriage of their TV stations' signals on cable and satellite TV. New spectrum that would have cost cellular-phone companies billions of dollars has been handed to them for free.
But those victories were all in Washington. In New York City, in their quest to replace the broadcast tower lost in the attack on the World Trade Center, broadcasters are striking out.
Forget the inevitable community opposition that springs up anywhere a broadcast tower does. The most important TV stations of America's most powerful media companies can't get past Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
It's not just that Bloomberg opposes the stations' central plan to put a tower on a government-owned island near downtown Manhattan. Broadcasters are flummoxed at how dismissive he has been—in public—of both the tower proposal and of the broadcasters themselves.
If the broadcasters had their way, they would build a new tower on Governors Island, a sliver of federal land off the southern tip of Manhattan, accessible only by boat, that for years served as little more than a Coast Guard station. It's not too far from the World Trade Center site, has enough space to carve out a tower site and leave room for other uses. And there are no litigious owners of million-dollar apartments in the neighborhood.
But Bloomberg—who is about to get the island back after 200 years of federal ownership—sees the island as a site for a new campus of City University of New York (CUNY), the city-run college determined to revive some of its former glory. His vision does not include a broadcast tower.
"There are a few people who wanted to put a big TV antenna [on the island]," Bloomberg told John Gambling's audience on WABC(AM) three weeks ago. "I don't think the president, when he talked about giving us the island, thought about trading in education for Beavis & Butt-head."
In May, Bloomberg, on the same show, said: "There is an argument that you need a tower. The counter-argument is that, in this day and age, if you can see the sky, you can see a satellite. Or we have cable systems, and so having broadcast facilities is less important than it used to be—still important but less important. There are other solutions: You could have smaller towers located in different directions from the central city."
Bloomberg even suggested that college students on the island would be at risk. "There's an issue if you're going to have schools right at the base of it: radiation."
This from a man who is himself a broadcaster and cable programmer. His business-news company owns WBBR(AM) New York and Bloomberg Television, a cable network.
Local TV executives are disturbed and perplexed by Bloomberg's opposition and privately critical of his apparent ignorance of their business and problems. But they also acknowledge misstepping in their lobbying, particularly for allowing Bloomberg's opposition to harden without having talked to him.
"I think the people in our group are politically savvy in terms of understanding politics and covering it," said Bill Baker, president of local PBS station WNET(TV), whom his peers chose to be chairman of their tower alliance. "They are not politically savvy in trying to get things from the government, because they aren't out asking for things from the government."
Albert Butzel, who, as president of the Governors Island Alliance, opposes the tower, is surprised that broadcasters haven't made a better case. "It's not been very well presented to begin with," he said. "I think there's always a certain lack of credibility that accompanies something like this. There's always a wringing of hands. But they're all on the air. The industry isn't going to crash; it hasn't crashed so far."
Butzel said the alliance he heads believes a 2,000-foot tower on the island would destroy the view of New York Harbor, particularly by competing with the Statue of Liberty. He said the group would like much of the island set aside for parks and recreation.
Stung by Bloomberg's comments, TV executives are now overhauling their efforts. They axed a long-time broadcast lawyer whom they had chosen to lead their joint tower group, the Metropolitan Television Alliance. A new, more recognizable face should be appointed within two weeks. His first job will be to line up support and hone the arguments.
The struggle for a new tower started on Sept. 11 at 10:29 a.m., when the north tower of the World Trade Center crumbled, following its twin, which had collapsed half an hour earlier. Since the towers were built in 1973, they had housed the central facility for most local TV and radio stations. (Six engineers manning the transmission equipment died in the attack.)
The loss of the tower did not devastate the TV stations because about 80% of the 7.9 million TV homes in the New York market receive their broadcast signals via cable or satellite TV, not off the air. Nonetheless, the stations scrambled to reach the remaining 20%, cutting deals for temporary use of various transmission facilities around the city. Today, most have relocated to the Empire State Building. But with the exception of WCBS-TV, which had its backup transmitter located there, the stations are operating at reduced power and at lower antenna heights. That means their signals don't propagate as well and they are not reaching as many viewers as they used to. And, in broadcasting, fewer viewers mean less revenue. To restore full power and coverage and to accommodate planned digital-TV facilities, the TV stations quickly realized that they would need a new tower. (They would maintain facilities at Empire as backup.)
The MTVA comprises all the city's major TV broadcasters: ABC (WABC-TV); CBS (WCBS-TV); Tribune (WPIX[TV]); Fox (WWOR-TV and WNYW[TV]); NBC (WNBC[TV] and WNJU[TV]); Paxson (WPXN-TV); Univision (WXTV[TV]); and WNET. They have agreed to share the cost equally and, according to Baker, have already spent "millions" on engineering studies and lobbying.
A new tower is, well, a tall feat. At 2,000 feet, even the simplest, ugly, Erector-set mast would run $30 million, plus $60 million for a building housing transmission equipment. A more elegant freestanding tower—sans guy wires—would require less land but cost $200 million to $300 million, particularly if it had any kind of observation deck or restaurant as some local developers have suggested.
Finding a site in New York has not been easy. One big restriction is that a new tower has to be within an FCC-mandated 3.2 miles of the World Trade Center site to avoid interfering with signals in other markets. Another is the city's three major airports: Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark. The new tower cannot be anywhere near their flight paths.
The group considered many sites in the outer boroughs, New Jersey and even Manhattan. According to Baker, two developers said they would incorporate a tower into planned high-rise buildings in lower Manhattan. For various reasons, though, all but two sites have been ruled out.
Some hold out hope for the Liberty Science Center, a museum along the New Jersey shore. Unfortunately, it's close to Newark International Airport. While a tower would not be in regular flight paths, it might be in the path designated for aborted landings and takeoffs. There are also concerns about the soil and about the proximity to the Statue of Liberty.
Most broadcasters now believe Governors Island is the only answer. "Everybody assumes that there are alternatives," said one broadcaster deeply involved in the process. "If there were, we would be there already."
Even before the broadcasters' interest emerged, Governors Island had been getting a lot of attention. When the Bush administration announced its intention to transfer the island to the state and city in April, Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki said they would transform it into a CUNY campus.
Broadcasters are trying to work with CUNY. They are prepared to pay for the use of the tower site—money that could be funneled to the school, which says it will need $20 million to $30 million a year to operate the island. And they would also support the teaching of broadcast engineering and journalism.
Even with the incentives, Jay Hershenon, CUNY vice chancellor for university relations, makes it clear that the college is not yet on board with the broadcasters. "Our energy is not focused on ancillary activities and proposals for the island that don't have academic programs as the essential element."
In making their case, broadcasters feel their best argument is the underserved viewers. They say 1.6 million area homes rely on their now-impaired over-the-air reception and that many are poor, elderly and minorities. The claim may be true, but, so far, there have been no grassroots complaints that might influence the mayor.
Broadcasters will also argue that the tower is needed for public safety. The tower can also support the communications of police and emergency agencies—communications that were disrupted on Sept. 11 by the loss of the World Trade Center towers. Thus, broadcasters are now seeking support from police and fire departments—and their unions.
Lastly, there is the DTV transition. The broadcasters will argue that they need the tower so that they can build their digital stations and offer new services like high-definition television. The FCC is also pressuring stations to build DTV stations so that it can recover their analog spectrum.
"CBS has an enormous stake in the success of the [digital] transition," says CBS's Marty Franks. "And it's hard to see how that transition will go terribly well if the digital stations in the No. 1 market are not on the air."
Broadcasters are looking for support wherever they can. They have had productive talks with Gov. Pataki and State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. And, two weeks ago, broadcast lobbyists met in Washington with officials of the General Services Administration, the federal agency that still controls the property. They asked the GSA not to put any condition on the transfer of the island that would prevent a tower's being built on it.
But the meeting the broadcasters need the most is with Mayor Bloomberg. "I think that he's got some bad information in front of him," said one broadcaster. "We've got to get him some better information. We could get a meeting with him if we were willing to give up on Governors Island before the meeting. We'd rather have the meeting when it could be more productive."
WNET's Baker thinks broadcasters deserve a fair hearing. "Television is so important to our community, and it was especially proven after Sept. 11, in which every single television broadcaster here proved the worth of the broadcasting profession," he says. "But yet, when it comes to building a tower to serve all of the people in the community, everybody wants one and thinks it is a good idea, but nobody wants it in their backyard."